As someone who has lived in Seoul, and have been lucky enough to return to Korea several times since, I have to say I am thrilled that the goofy ahjeoshi rapper PSY has become a global hit with his ridiculous and catchy Gangnam Style. Passing 700 million visits on YouTube, the brilliant spoof of life in tony Seoul south of the Han River (Hangang) is a guilty pleasure. For me it was so guilty I bought my first and only ringtone--the opening to Gangnam Style, of course.
We feel about Gangnam the way we do about other neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills, the Upper East Side, Pacific Heights, Bloomfield Hills and the City of London. Many of us are appalled by the extravagance, obscene cost of living, outrageous stores that promote crass materialism and the heinous attitude of some--not most in fairness--of the people that live there.
And yet a little part of us wants to be a part of it.
Gangnam style means shopping in areas like Apkujeong-dong--if your parents are wealthy enough to allow for such a lifestyle. It means posh department stores where a dozen sales clerks will descend on you like flies when all you want to do is buy a pair of namja-panti. And it could be a little risky for your shoes as some poor sap who drank too much at the soju-bang, again, vomited and well, left a gift on your feet--which happened to countless friends of mine on Seoul’s subway or along one of the myriad alleys riddled with restaurants, shops and bars. Getting there, and out of Gangnam is maddening in itself. Despite Seoul’s incredible public transportation system, there is a good chance that your Korean colleague will insist on driving you there and back to show off his or her car, which means you will spend more time in the Hyundai Grandeur (the exclusive car at least when I lived there) than you did downing some beer, soju and maybe whiskey with your ssam-gyeop-ssal (Korean fatty bacon, goes well with kim-chi and booze).
And yet there are plenty of gems to be found in Gangnam. Alleys have cheap places at which to nosh--after all, the store clerks and security guards have to be able to afford to eat there; and cute little shops are staffed by college kids, who, if they see you are Caucasian, may assume you are American (sorry Canadians). And for the sustainability mafia, there is even a slow but growing sense of ecological awareness, though for now it is relegated to shopping for a few organic grains in the “well-being” section of the basement supermarket department store. But any healthful living can be exorcised in an evening in one of the ridiculous nightclubs for which Gangnam is famous--just be sure you shell out a few hundred bucks (on the low end) for a fruit plate and some grilled octopus, best gnawed on while listening to, of course, K-pop.
So Gangnam, which really has only been around since the 1980s and for the most part is full of drab concrete apartment buildings that look more Eastern European than hypermodern Asian, is worth checking out. It is a gleaming window through which to catch one view of life in Korea. Don’t miss it and make a point to travel there and enjoy a Gangnam Style tour. Then get the hell out and go hiking in one of the amazing mountain parks that you can access by subway, and within a few hours you will purge Gangnam out of your system.
And so without further adieu, here is my feeble attempt to help PSY pass the billion view mark on YouTube. Please replay and replay.
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Photo courtesy Leon Kaye